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A Long Latin Ride from New York to Miami With Cubana Bus

June 11, 1990

ABOARD CUBANA BUS NO. 8801 (AP) _ The trip is already four hours behind schedule when the bus leaves its Union City, N.J., terminal for Florida. No one seems to mind.

Passengers sip thimbles of sweet black Cuban coffee as the bus rumbles onto Interstate 95.

″Musica, musica 3/8″ shouts someone from the rear of Cubana bus No. 8801, which is carrying 34 passengers 1,300 miles southward. Luis Niebla looks at his co-driver, Osvaldo Rodrigues, smiles and puts on a cassette tape of Roberto Carlos, a Latin singer.

Rodrigues takes out a microphone and in Spanish tells the passengers what’s ahead: at least 22 hours on the highway, including dinner at a Latin cafe, a stop in Washington, D.C., to pick up passengers, breakfast in north Florida, and arrival in Miami the next afternoon.

He warns passengers no drinking is allowed on board, or drugs, and that anybody in violation will be turned over to the highway patrol.

As the bus heads down the highway, Carlos croons on, ″En otras palabras, yo soy un romantico,″ or ″In other words, I’m a romantic.″ An hour later, the bus stops in Elizabeth, N.J., for dinner at El Pimiento Rojo, a Salvadoran cafe with its menu painted in Spanish on the wall.

The drivers quaff down a yerba mate (Latin tea) soda, and passengers order bacalao (codfish), carne asada con arroz blanco (roast beef with white rice) and frijoles negros (black beans). We seem far from America already.

Back on the road, Niebla puts on a videotape of the movie ″Aliens.″ Most are quiet on board as the bus crosses into Delaware at sunset, except Ruben Dario Lugo, a night security guard who has been chatting with passengers almost nonstop since he got on board.

″I talk a lot, don’t I? There’s no one to talk to in my work and when I get home every day, I sleep,″ says Lugo, born to Puerto Rican parents in New York and now living in Miami.

Night sets in, and people straggle up front for a shot of Cuban coffee from a Thermos. A Philadelphia radio station plays oldies as we cross into Maryland. A Venezuelan girl walks by wearing a ″Who Killed Roger Rabbit″ T- shirt.

″Avenging Force,″ a violent B-grade film about a secret white supremacist society involved in killings in Louisiana, comes on, and again the bus quiets, most passengers transfixed by the TV screen above Niebla.

A slim crescent of moon rises in the sky; soon the bus exits at Chevy Chase, Md., and heads into Washington, D.C., to pick up a family of four.

″A lot of people travel with us because they’re afraid to fly,″ says Niebla, whose bus was delayed by a breakdown on the previous run. ″It’s not just the Latins either; we get some Haitians, too.″

Katia Chamah, 18, comes up front as we pass the lighted Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument; she and Niebla, 33, begin talking, mostly in Spanish. They switch easily between the two languages.

She speaks of vacations, her college studies and dreams of a career as a forensic psychologist. Niebla talks of fishing in the Florida Keys and serving in the U.S. military.

We pass Richmond, Va.; it’s been six hours on the road. The seven children on board seem well-mannered, and none of the adults are misbehaving.

Cuban-born Niebla says he fled to Florida with his parents in 1967. His father, a schoolteacher, had opposed Fidel Castro, and been publicly scorned by the Cuban government. His mother helped the anti-Castro underground, Niebla says.

″She used to stick ammo in her shirt and take it to people hiding out in the mountains,″ he says.

The heads of the sleeping passengers bob in the night. Daylight comes in a light fog in southern Georgia. The bus pulls into a truck stop for breakfast outside Jacksonville, Fla., then it’s back on the road for the final run to Miami.

At this point in the trip, most of Florida looks the same - mile after mile of palmettoes, palms and wild Brazilian pepper trees.

The bus continues on to West Palm Beach, where a few passengers are let off. Many of the remaining travelers order coffee, sandwiches and pastries from the adjacent Cuban diner.

Weary, most everyone is quiet when the bus pulls into the one-room Cubana terminal, which has a faded map of Cuba on one wall, in the Little Havana section of Miami.

Niebla is rewarded by Chamah with a bag full of tips she collected from the passengers as the bus pulled into Miami. He’s greeted by his wife and one of his daughters, who clings to him.

″He’s on the road so much,″ his wife says, wringing her hands.

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